Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: A celebrated poet on her 80th birthday

Moya Cannon, Gerald Dawe, Vincent Woods and Enda Wyley pay tribute to Aosdána’s new Saoi

The remarkable career of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin will be celebrated twice this week, ahead of her upcoming 80th birthday later this month. In a ceremony on Thursday, President Michael D Higgins will confer the gold Torc, marking her election to the position of Saoi of Aosdána. On Saturday, a symposium at Trinity College Dublin will explore her work.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s contribution to the life of Trinity, where she taught in the School of English for many years, has been extensive. Her scholarship includes pioneering research into a fascinating array of subjects, from the sermons of John Donne to the fiction of Maria Edgeworth to the Civil War prison diary of Joseph Campbell. Following on from the publication last year of her Collected Poems, though, the day-long event at Trinity will primarily focus on her poetry.

Across nine collections, starting with the publication of Acts and Monuments in 1972, an authoritative and visionary poetic voice has been unfurled. Ní Chuilleanáin’s work undoubtedly poses challenges to its readers. These are rooted not only in the breadth and depth of her interests, but also in her poetry’s distinctive combination of the concrete and the mysterious.

In The Bend in the Road, from the 2001 collection The Girl who Married the Reindeer, we seem at first to be within a straightforward recollection of experience: ‘This is the place where the child / Felt sick in the car’. But the poem then moves towards the unsettling intimations of folklore and fairytale, becoming something of a condensed parable: ‘and they pulled over / And waited in the shadow of a house. / A tall tree like a cat’s tail waited too.’ Hers is a poetic world of narrative lyrics, of stories already begun and yet to be finished. Mysterious journeys and sequestered spaces ever hint at something being expressed in terms of something else.


Awarded many prizes, from the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1973 through to the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2020, the significance of Ní Chuilleanáin’s achievement has in recent years become more visible to an increasingly wide readership in Ireland and abroad. This has gone hand-in-hand with a subtle opening out to a more tangible sense of memory, history and place in her three most recent collections, The Sun-fish (2009), The Boys of Bluehill (2015), and The Mother House (2020). Engaging too was her energetic term as Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2016 to 2019.

Published as Instead of a Shrine (2019), the three lectures Ní Chuilleanáin gave in that office offer much illumination into the ideas about poetry that stand behind her work. The first focuses on the poetry of Pearse Hutchinson (alongside whom she co-edited the long-running poetry magazine Cyphers for many years), her intense interest in the practice of translation comes to the fore ­­­­– thinking that has informed not only her extensive activity as a translator (from Irish, Italian, French and Romanian poetry) but is also central to her own work.

A witty exploration of the slights put upon poetry in fiction in the next lecture turns into a clear-sighted affirmation that ‘poetry can reach its reader across cultural and temporal and national gaps’. Her extensive poetic engagement with the rituals of the religious life are also thrown into relief by the closing lecture’s sense of poetry as a fabricated ritual whose ‘greatest resource is negation, the ability to acknowledge the contradictory yeses and nos of our experience, the registering of all that is missing’.

The event in Trinity will expand on some of the paths into her poetry opened up by these wonderful lectures. It will include speakers considering Ní Chuilleanáin’s engagement with readers and publics, and with questions of language and translation. Other contributors will delve into the influences that have fed into her work, such as her engagements with Renaissance literature and Catholicism. The event will also feature a reading by the poet, as well as a panel of contemporary poets expanding on their responses below to the question of why Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry has for so long meant so much to them.

Moya Cannon

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are characterised by what could be called ‘a pleasing unfathomableness’, like a bottomless well. There is an undeconstructable core to each of them. This leaves the reader with a sense that, tantalisingly, there is always something more to be discovered or which may never be discovered.

Yet her poems have nothing of obscurantism. They are as earthed as a folk tale and, from the first line, plunge us into a different but very recognisable world. They locate us in an emotional space and bring us on a journey. Allegory, myth, dream and understatement are tools which she uses with immense skill.

Key to her capacity to capture her readers is the quiet sensuousness of her language and imagery. When, in her first collection, she lays her head against ‘the vibrant coping stones’ of a small bridge in Co Cork or, in her most recent collection, she lays her cheek against a limestone pillar, remnant of the huge collapsed Morandi bridge in Genova, she sets off an emotional tuning fork. Her varied, surprising images lead us deeper into the precious tangibility, the music and mystery of life. They remind me of what Denise Levertov said a poem should be: ‘direct as what the birds said, hard as a floor, sound as a bench, mysterious as the silence’.

Gerald Dawe

It was in the early 1970s when I first encountered Eiléan’s poetry. Living then in Belfast as the city was tearing itself apart, her poems beguiled me. There was something other-worldly about them but this was matched by the poems of family life, her glorious sense of European culture and a fascination with landscape: it was balm to a fraught time.

All the decades since, Eiléan’s books have opened many doors on unforeseen vistas with an utterly unique, perceptive storytelling. You can be transported in time and place at the switch of an image, a momentary voice, a hypnotic song-like telling that is indeed second-sighted, as Seamus Heaney aptly described Eiléan’s powerful verse. Which is just to say, I’ve been beguiled ever since.

Vincent Woods

Eiléan is unique – there’s no voice quite like hers; there’s an edge of mystery in a great deal of her poetry, the enigmatic woven through an almost plain clarity. You don’t always understand everything, but then that’s a bit like life or a great painting or piece of music. She makes complete worlds in each poem, spheres that are self-contained and porous, anchored and free.

There’s a cinematic eye for detail, a precision of detail and image and language – of languages. Her translations from Irish are brilliant, her own poems in Irish are expansive and tender. I can’t speak for her translations from Romanian, except that the poems in English are compelling and I have no doubt they absolutely honour and echo the originals by Ileana Malancioiu. Compelling and true, also, are her translations from Italian and French.

Eiléan wears her erudition lightly, she also carries it with force and conviction – bad poems exist and get published, good poems can fall apart.

We see her dedication and work ethic in the ongoing production and publication of Cyphers, which continues to publish the unexpected, the edgy, voices and perspectives that we might not get anywhere else. She’s a generous supporter to other poets, a figure of integrity and an inspiration.

She’s a trooper: file fíor agus réalta geal.

Enda Wyley

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a mesmeric poet. She draws us in to particular and peculiar imaginative settings of her own exquisite making with such skill, such inventiveness, that she demands of us as readers a new way of seeing our world. For me, the best of poems have an intrinsic mystery to them. They can affect us deeply in an indefinable and memorable way. Her poems can often read as unresolved riddles – I’m thinking for instance of her enigmatic poem Swineherd. But it’s a poetry that for all its inscrutability has never ceased to cast a strange spell over me, so that I feel endlessly inspired and imaginatively transformed.

She’s a poet itching to go elsewhere – a spirited poet who bravely moves wherever her imagination chooses to go. Moreover, her work is strenuously buoyed by an expansive use of language, is alive with a surreal dynamism, a striking unexpectedness of imagery, such as in the poem Street, from her 1989 collection The Magdalene Sermon:

He fell in love with the butcher’s daughter

when he saw her passing by in her white trousers

dangling a knife on a ring at her belt.

He stared at the dark shining drops on the paving stones.

Her poems also oscillate between stillness and movement, and I love the crafted shifts, both imaginative and cerebral, that take place in her work. As a steadfast admirer of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry, I have always been more than happy to experience time stretch and collapse, boundaries artfully dissolve, in her poems of magnificence and great mystery.

Tom Walker is an Associate Professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin and one of the organisers of The Poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: A Celebration, a symposium being held at the Trinity Long Room Hub on Saturday, November 19th.